God of Fire, Chapters 1 & 2
Or: A Bit of Market Research
Chapter 1: A Tiny Apocalypse
The glass hits the bar with a slight thump. You stare at it for a while and then slowly tilt your head up. The bartender raises an eyebrow.
“You okay, son?”
“Sorry,” you say, “Woolgathering.”
“Well,” he sighs, “There’s your drink. You gonna pay now or start a tab?”
The glass of brown liquid sits on the bar. Bourbon, you say to yourself, neat. And you are surprised that you know what that is. You’re even more surprised that you are surprised. Isn’t that a thing you’re supposed to know? You ordered the drink, after all.
Or did you?
The words roll around in your head for an eternity. “Did I order this?”
“Are you okay, son?” the question takes on an urgent tone laced with…fear? Is this bartender afraid of you or for you?
“I don’t really know.”
“You been drinking already?”
“I…I don’t think so.
“Tell you what, how about you drink some water? That’ll help you clear your mind.” He picks a glass up from under the bar and holds it up to the light. You can see smudges on the glass. He wipes it off with a rag that looks like it was just on the floor, fills it up with water from a tap somewhere under the bar, and puts it in front of you.
You drink the water. It’s lukewarm and tastes slightly of copper. Probably the pipes, probably not blood.
Why do you know what copper tastes like? Why do you know it’s in both pipes and blood?
“So where you from, son?”
You look back at the bartender. He is old. His face is lined and rough from years in a rough place and what little hair he has left sticks out in a wispy fringe around his head. His eyes are young, somehow, filled with kindness and concern. He is a hard man in a hard place who is still, somehow, capable of kindness. You know this is amazing even if you don’t know why.
The silence becomes uncomfortable again.
“Here?” you try. Are you from here? Maybe. Here seems as likely as there, after all.
“No, son,” he shakes his head, “You aren’t from here.”
“How do you know?”
“Been here pretty near my whole life,” he shrugs, “’Cept the war, of course.”
It’s strange how it’s always “the war.” You’ve never been to war, at least not that you know of, but you know that for the history books it’s always this war or that war. For veterans it’s simply “the war.” There is only one war fought endlessly throughout time. The names and dates change. The prematurely aged faces change. The war remains.
“And I’m not from here?”
Those kind eyes blink. You realize in that moment that this is probably the only safe place for you. This place with this kind old bartender. You are alone, after all. You don’t know who or where you are. This is a bad time to be among the unkind. Most of the world is unkind.
The bartender nods towards the door. “That car of yours has Ohio plates. Are you from Ohio?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Ohio.”
“Then where’d that car of yours come from?”
“I don’t know,” you shrug, “Are you sure it’s my car?”
“You drove up in it.”
“Maybe I’m borrowing it from a friend.”
He shrugs. “Maybe. Strange that a friend would let you borrow a car and take it from Ohio to Nevada, though.”
“Nevada?” You know, vaguely, what this means. You know it means you are a long distance from Ohio. You know another thing. Vegas. Are you here because you want to go to Vegas? That seems like a place people go.
You reject that thought. You’re trying to go where people don’t go. That’s why you’re here where the world is cruel and hard and only the hardest can grow old with kind eyes. You wonder if you have kind eyes.
The bourbon is still on the counter so you look into it. It’s a poor mirror that tells you nothing. You assume that’s probably for the best. You’re not sure you can handle your reflection just yet.
You stare into that cloudy mirror. You feel yourself pick up the glass and tilt it upwards. You feel the liquid burn down your throat. You hear yourself cough.
The glass remains on the bar. There’s exactly as much bourbon in it now as there was before. You know now that you can’t drink it. You pick up the water instead and take a sip of lukewarm water laced with blood.
You can’t take that bartender’s sad, kind eyes anymore. You stand, reach into your pocket, pull out a crumpled bill. You place it on the counter and unfold it, feeling the sweat from your pocket leech back onto your hands.
“Thanks for the drink,” you say.
He stares down at the bill as if it’s a complete mystery. You look down at it, too, trace the face of a long-dead man you know is named Benjamin Franklin even though you don’t know how. Your eyes trace the one and the two zeroes and for a moment you are ashamed. Is this enough for a glass of bourbon? Is it better if the glass is still full?
“You didn’t even drink it,” he says.
You shrug. “Still made you pour it.”
“Hold on,” he picks up the bill, “Let me get you your change.”
He turns to his cash register and you walk out of the bar.
The keys for the 1972 Pontiac GTO in the parking lot are in your pocket. The bartender told you it’s yours, so you take a long look at it. The car is orange. At least it was orange before it was mostly metal and rust.
You’re so absorbed with the question of the color that it doesn’t occur to you to wonder how you know it’s a 1972 Pontiac GTO. You’re so absorbed with the question of the color that you don’t realize you’re not alone in the parking lot and that the 1972 Pontiac GTO isn’t the only car. Then your new companion speaks.
“You’ll have to come with me now, son,” he says, “We have some questions for you.”
You turn, slowly. A man stands behind you in a black shirt and one of those Smokey the Bear hats. There’s a car behind him that says “Nevada Highway Patrol.”
“I didn’t do anything,” you say, but you’re not quite sure if that’s the case. If you don’t remember something can you really say you did it?
“We’re going to need to make sure of that.”
“Am I under arrest?” You know this is the thing you’re supposed to say.
“Not yet. But if you don’t come with me willingly I can and will place you under arrest.”
“Oh.” You turn back towards the 1972 Pontiac GTO and reach into your pocket for the keys.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, son,” the voice is low, full of warning. This, too, is a hard man who has lived in a hard place. It was too dark to determine if his eyes are full of kindness.
You take a half step towards the 1972 Pontiac GTO. The gravel of the parking lot crunches behind you. A hand falls on your shoulder. You feel the pressure and then you don’t.
The highway patrolman makes a noise. It’s a strange, small, frightened squeak, almost entirely unlike the noise you would expect to hear from a hard man in this hard place. You turn, curious.
He’s holding his hand up, staring at it. His mouth is open and his eyes are full of terror. This is because his hand, you now see, is glowing red.
You feel the heat pour off of his hand in waves. They grow and pulse and resonate. You see the strange glow begin to show around the edges of his collar. Then his face goes red.
As the glow reaches the brim of his cap the highway patrolman bursts into flames.
You turn back to the 1972 Pontiac GTO. You start to pull your keys out of your pocket. Then you realize that there’s something else you have to do.
Some minutes later you get back behind the wheel of the 1972 Pontiac GTO and drive away. The flames from the burning bar rise into the night.
Chapter 2: First Things
I suppose that I could tell you right here and now that the Nevada Highway Patrol officer was a monster. I suppose I could tell you that he got what he deserved. I could go farther and say that he deserved a longer, more agonizing death than the one you gave him.
His name, in case you’re wondering, is…was Frank. It’s a good name, Frank. Frank Lambert, Nevada State Highway Patrolman. He had a wife and a son and a daughter and he loved them, Frank did. He loved them with all of his heart. I suppose now you know that his wife and son and daughter loved him, too, and you’re seeing in your mind’s eye a little boy crying himself to sleep in a world that’s suddenly gone cold and lonely.
Would it make you feel better if I told you that Frank’s love only goes so far? Because I can tell you a story of love gone cold and twisted. If Frank had never met you, never touched your ordinary-looking shoulder on that extraordinary (at least for him) night he would eventually have reached the limits of his love for his son.
See, there was a night he was destined to come home early because he felt sick and find his son, his perfect, precious, all-American boy, on his knees in front of another boy from school. That other boy’s pants were down around his ankles and his cock was in Frank’s son’s mouth and Frank’s son was furiously masturbating and both boys were filled with the joy of discovery and exploration.
Something in Frank would break that night. His boy would learn to cry himself to sleep without a father either way. Such is the world.
Frank’s family’s story of unhappiness and tragedy don’t end there, either. The following year his daughter would come home from college with her new boyfriend. Frank would be confronted by the fact that his daughter was dating a black man and something further would break.
So maybe it’s better that Frank died that night like he did. I’m sure you can imagine him, this small-minded man from a map bump somewhere in northern Nevada. I’m sure you can hear in your head all of the awful words he used to chase his gay son from his house and his heart. I’m sure you can hear all of the terrible things he said to the man, no, the subhuman, no, the animal who dared to court his daughter.
I would love to tell you that all of these things are in Frank’s future and that he’s a monster. Because I would love to tell you that you are not a monster. I would love to tell you that you are an avenging angel of death whose main fault isn’t aim but timing.
But, alas, I cannot. For, you see, I lied to you just now. It’s not that Frank’s boy is straight or his daughter married a white man. It’s that all of those things happened in the past.
Frank did walk in on his son with another boy’s cock in his mouth. Frank had suspected for some time and been afraid of the moment it happened, but not because he feared his son’s sexuality. He feared his love would not be enough to help him properly understand. He feared that his parents would disown their one and only grandson. He feared that his town would disown him.
Three years later Frank walked his only daughter down the aisle to hand her over to a man with charcoal-dark skin. Frank cried, but not for what he was losing. Frank cried because his daughter was happy and would be loved long after her daddy wasn’t there for her anymore.
After that ceremony Frank started saving money again. The day after gay marriage became legal throughout the land he called his son, who was at that point living in Portland with his boyfriend of five years, and offered to pay for their wedding. If they wanted to have one.
I wish I could tell you that Frank is a monster. But I have to tell you that his wife, his daughter, and his three sons stood around his closed casket and wept bitterly. Because there are monsters in this world and there are innocents and although Frank had seen more than enough that he was no longer fully innocent by any reasonable measure he was a good, loving father and husband. The world is diminished by his loss. The world is diminished because one night he met a monster.
As for that kind-eyed bartender who died in the flames of his failing business, I will tell you this. His heart would have given out the next day and he would have died in that building, anyway. I will also tell you this other thing, and I’ll tell you the truth, he did go to war. And he did some awful things. He killed and maimed. But every story of war includes killing and maiming. He went for a special level of atrocity.
One night his squad came upon a village that was supposedly passing information to the enemy. They burned the village down. Before they did they found a woman and her teenage daughter and held the woman down and forced her to watch as they took turns sodomizing the daughter. And then when that horror was accomplished they took turns with the mother. Then they left both to die in their own burning house.
It is beyond me how that bartender managed to survive as long as he did, knowing what he knew. He bounced three children and seven grandchildren on his knee and never once thought about the terror in that mother’s eyes while he forced himself on her daughter. He sat in church every Sunday morning and piously looked down his nose at the evil people of the world. In his mind the evil people were the fornicators and the homosexuals and the people who dared to elevate the lesser races to the status of human. He instilled those values on his children and they, in turn, instilled them in their children. He deserved what you did to him and more.
But that’s not really a part of your story. I just tell you these things so that you know that these things are complicated. I tell you these things so that you know that I am not unaware of what you have done and what, by extension, I have done. Because you are who you are because I made you that way.
It was not my intention, really. Mistakes were made. Deadlines were ignored. Contingency plans were never put in place. So when that day which had been so far off on the horizon arrived I had to do something. What I did was make you.
So I suppose I should introduce myself. I’ve been quite rude up until this point.
I am known to many people by many names but you may call me First. Because that’s what I am. I am the First because there were none of my kind before me. I am First because none of those who came after could overcome me.
I have fought and struggled from a time long before you came to be in this place. I have made you my weapon for the next fight because although I am First that does not mean that I am best and the next fight is one I cannot win on my own. It’s really too bad for you and for poor, loving Frank that I didn’t plan for this moment as well as I should have.
Again, mistakes were made.
Innocents paid the price.
Isn’t that how it always goes?
Anyway, I suppose I should also introduce you to yourself. That would be the polite thing to do, according to human reckoning. But it would not be the kind thing. It’s also not the expedient thing.
I suppose I could tell you that your name is something like John Smith and you live at 1001 Elm Street in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. That sounds made up and obvious, if for no other reason than I am too lazy to be assed to figure out a suburb of Cleveland to name drop. But it also doesn’t matter because even if you were John Smith of 1001 Elm Street once you are no longer John Smith of 1001 Elm Street. And the journey from John Smith to what you are now is a painful one that you are not ready to deal with just yet.
Suffice it to say that the last time you were at home it wasn’t in Ohio. You weren’t driving a 1972 Pontiac GTO (and it’s interesting that this is the part you keep focusing on. One of these days when I’m not so busy I’ll have to have a peek into your childhood bedroom. I imagine that there was at least one poster of a GTO in there). Your pockets weren’t full of greasy, sweaty one hundred dollar bills. The story of how you got all of those things is interesting, to say the least. But it’s also awful and full of monsters. And in every single one of those stories you aren’t the only monster but you are the biggest one.
For the time being you are not a who. For the time being you are a what.
One day you will remember. Right now you’re in what the psychologists call a “dissociative fugue state.” That simply means that your brain has shut down from all of the stress. Well, not your whole brain, obviously, just the part of your brain that makes you into you. And that’s good for me because I need you to not be you for a while longer.
Did you ever hear the story of Herakles? Or maybe you remember him as Hercules, as that’s what the Romans called him. And I’m not talking about the Herakles from that campy (but delightful) television show from the ‘90s.
Oh, wait, I just realized that’s your only real connection to Hercules. Damn. This might take some telling, then.
See, the Herakles I knew wasn’t a happy-go-lucky photogenic television star. He was a big, beefy mountain of a man who happened to show up in the right place at the right time because I needed a weapon and, ho, boy, was he a weapon. But he was a dour man, my mountain of a weapon, and a bit of a drinker.
I wasn’t as wise then as I am now. This whole thing where I needed weapons was still new. Let’s just say that you will order many drinks you can’t bring yourself to even pick up over the coming days. Honestly, it’s probably for the best. Your liver isn’t in the best shape right now and you’ve got a lot of driving to do.
Anyway, that bit about Herakles being the son of Zeus was wrong, all wrong. But he was touched by the supernatural and that gave him the ability to do things no one else in the world could do. So those ancient Hellenes, bless their story-loving hearts, turned him into a half god. They were less than half right but also less than half wrong.
I have digressed and I am sorry, for time is of the essence. I tend to drift into story and memory these days. It’s a consequence of age and fear. It’s why I didn’t prepare my weapon like I should. It’s why you’re driving as fast as you can through the Nevada night to get away from a burning bar and a dead highway patrolman. There was a time when I could handle all of this on my own. That time is long behind me.
Before Herakles knew he’d been suffused with my essence and turned into a weapon, before I learned the consequences of suffusing a man and turning him into a weapon, he killed his family. The storytellers say he got drunk and didn’t know what he was doing. That part is less than half right but also less than half wrong. Because Herakles did get drunk. Herakles did kill his family.
You, you, my pet monster, were not drunk that first night. None of my weapons have been drunk that first night since Herakles did what he did. I thought, at first, that it was the combination of power and alcohol, but I found out that I was wrong. The innocents always die first. Now I just keep you away from alcohol because it’s an issue of fine motor control and focus. You need both, my dear weapon, even if you don’t remember why.
This is war, after all. You pretend you’ve civilized it and given it rules. But those rules always break down. Soldiers under siege steal food from children and tell themselves that if they stay on the walls the children won’t live to see the horrors of war. Bombs fall from the sky and land on the roof of the hospital or in the middle of a wedding party. Small groups of men with guns forget their humanity and see a terrified mother and daughter not as people like them but a set of holes to satisfy their animal urges and come not from the act but from the momentary arousal caused by fear.
War is an awful thing and the weapons of war are awful, frightful things to behold. Since you are now my weapon I must warn you that you are an awful, frightful thing to behold. It’s truly a pity that the innocent die first but if they didn’t we might become too accustomed to the idea of killing.
Anyway, where was I? Herakles, right.
We remember Herakles because of that story of the night of death and what he did afterwards. This is where reality and myth sharply diverge. For, you see, he did go on a journey and he did labor mightily and he did perform acts that no other man could do. He actually did divert a river, but he did it to drown an enemy encampment and not to muck out a spectacularly messy set of stables. I guess it seemed easier than killing them all one at a time.
Well, maybe not “we.” I remember him that way and historians remember him that way. You don’t remember him at all and when you do it will be as a character from a television show.
Which is something I love about you, by the way. And I don’t mean you as in you, my pet monster, but you as in all of you humans. You turn the greatest of tragedy into entertainment. You are, in your own way, like the ancient Romans whipping themselves into a blood frenzy at the Coliseum. You are also, in your own way, worse than the ancient Romans because at least they were honest about it.
I suppose this is the part where you think I’m about to take credit for all of the legendary heroes of old. I will be honest with you yet again here. I had nothing to do with most of them. Most of my weapons live and die in the dark. It’s only a fluke of history and narrative and witness that turned Herakles into television show material.
So you can take solace in one thing, my little monster. If we get through this in one piece you won’t be turned into a silly cartoon of yourself. You won’t have to watch your people turn you into a mockery of everything you’re about to do. You won’t be remembered. You will live and die in the dark and this is the greatest gift I can offer you.
Because you are a monster. You are a monster because that is what I need you to be right now. You are a monster and you are a weapon and if you are remembered it won’t be as anything else.
But you are a weapon because I need a weapon. You are a monster because all weapons are monstrous. You will become the most terrible of all of my weapons because that is what I need you to be. Because I am old and I am scatterbrained and I am First. Because I am old and I am weak and I am not last.
There is one thing you must know, my little monster. One thing that will get you through this day even when you start to remember it. There is one truth I can give you.
He is coming.
[Author’s Note: So this is a project I’m working on and, to be honest, I’m kind of in love with it. I am reaching out to the internet now because it’s not at all the sort of thing I’d usually write and it’s definitely the sort of structure that will make sticking the landing quite difficult. So, internet, I have a question. Does this make you want to know where the story is going?]